Empowering youth through digital and life skills awareness in rural India

As the pandemic has underlined the need to bridge digital divide, an NGO’s project is transforming lives in villages

Debika Goswami and Navneet Narwal | July 29, 2022


#digital divide   #Pandemic   #Education   #Technology  
Students of Digital and Life Skills Awareness class at Alwar, Rajasthan
Students of Digital and Life Skills Awareness class at Alwar, Rajasthan

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the entire digital landscape globally and compelled people, policy-makers and organizations to digitize their methods of reflections and operations. An analysis by UNCTAD [https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/dtlinf2020d1_en.pdf] points out that the pandemic has accentuated the adoption of digital solutions, tools and services worldwide, and has also brought to the fore the wide-ranging rift between the connected and the unconnected, revealing the digital exclusion of millions across the globe. These sections of the less digitally-equipped population continue to remain vulnerable with regard to further exclusion and marginalization in a post-pandemic world.

The pandemic has transformed the traditional chalk-talk teaching model, prevalent in India for ages, to one driven by technology. Educational institutes like schools, colleges, and universities in India have partnered with technology more than ever before. But promotion of technology-driven education solutions has also brought to the fore the stark persistent realities of the urban-rural divide in the country, especially in terms of availability of resources, which are key to access these online platforms. Only a handful of private educational institutes could adopt online teaching methods. Their low-income private and government counterparts, especially those located in the rural or semirural areas, still do not have access to e-learning solutions. Moreover, due to financial constraints, many students are not able to access the internet and are devoid of electronic gadgets and laptops, smart phones, or computers. This has led to discontinuity of learning for millions of young learners.

Due to the existing digital divide, the rural youth in India, in addition to the missed opportunities for learning, also lack access to information about higher education, skill development courses, job opportunities, accessing benefits of government programmes (the majority of which have shifted to online mode), and many more. Moreover, especially during the pandemic, when staying indoors and maintaining social distancing as much possible is a must-to-follow precautionary measure, using online options to secure essential services like shopping, paying bills, banking, tickets booking, to name a few, is extremely effective.

Efforts to make online learning inclusive for overcoming the digital divide barrier are essential. From the government’s DIKSHA platform to PM e-Vidya with twelve new DTH channels, e-learning solutions are designed in an inclusive manner to engage students from all sections of rural society. Mobile-based learning models can also be designed for effective delivery of education, keeping in mind the rapid increase of mobile internet users in India, which is expected to reach 85 percent of households by 2024. In addition, to bridge the digital divide from very early stages of student life, in 2020 the National Education Policy proposed to introduce computer coding from Standard 6 onward as compulsory. These are examples of the government’s efforts to introduce and build digital awareness among rural youth even in the remotest of Indian villages.

The ‘Transform Lives one school at a time’ programme of SM Sehgal Foundation is aligned with the objective of the government’s Digital India campaign, which focuses on enhancing digital awareness. Through this programme, Sehgal Foundation partners with communities to create secure, healthy and stimulating learning environments for the students of government schools in rural India. This also includes digital and life skills awareness so that every school child, especially girl children who have long been disadvantaged, has a brighter and more promising future. It focuses on the development of socio-emotional skills and increasing the students’ knowledge about various issues related to village development and how they can be a part of the trajectory. On the whole as a part of this initiative, schoolchildren learn basic life skills, including self-confidence, decision-making, and the use of digital devices and the internet, to bridge the divide between rural and urban children.

Digital awareness opening new vistas for rural youth

Students attending Digital and Life Skills Awareness classes, organized by Sehgal Foundation with support from its various partners, learn critical life skills such as self-understanding, recognizing myriad feelings and emotions, identifying values, improving communication skills, identifying goals and planning to achieve the same, knowing about gender equity, among others. Rudimentary digital awareness coupled with basic life skills awareness have made students more self-confident and encouraged them to explore newer vistas, which often otherwise remain untraversed by them. These include searching opportunities for higher education and suitable job vacancies; accessing benefits of government programmes, many of which have also transitioned to online mode; online transactions like banking, bill payments, ticket booking, retail therapy; attaining improved health and hygiene, among others.

This six-month course has been attended by students of various government schools predominantly in states such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh among others. This initiative has often transcended the boundaries of government schools and included rural youth, college-goers, school drop-outs (especially girls with discontinued educational trajectory), young mothers, among others, based on the requirement of youth population of the villages, across states in India.

A few selected stories of change from the ground throw light on the immediate outcomes that the Digital and Life Skills Awareness sessions bring forth and how these have been instrumental in transforming the lives of a number of young souls in rural areas of India.

1.    Aid to education and career opportunities

Choosing a new career option
Rohit, a resident of Bhandari village of Sitamarhi, Bihar, joined the Digital and Life Skills Awareness sessions after completion of class 12. After one month of joining the course, he gained enough confidence to buy a new laptop for home and started teaching computer to both of his brothers. Now both his brothers can also use computers. After completion of the course, Rohit went ahead and opened a shop in the local market about six kilometres from his home. In his shop, he provides services of photocopy, print, make online applications for various government programs, among others. This has considerably increased his family’s income.

Exploring new career opportunity
Uma, a resident of Chilamathur village, Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, enrolled in the training sessions of Digital and Life Skills Awareness. She always nurtured the idea of learning computer and internet and using the same skills to build a career for herself. After successfully completing the course, she joined a private company nearby and is working as a data entry operator, which provides her with a monthly income of Rs. 10,000. The life skills lessons also improved her communication and public speaking skills and increased her confidence greatly. She has become a role model for her peer group, as girls in her society are generally restricted from going outside and building a career for themselves.

2.    Aid to accessing benefits of government programmes

Accessing benefits under Targeted Public Distribution System
Manju, a student from Beejwad Naruka School of Alwar, Rajasthan, used her knowledge of internet surfing that she gained from the Digital and Life Skills Awareness sessions to know about the status of her family’s ration card that enables eligible rural households to get food items at subsidized rates on a monthly basis. She checked the status of the ration card and found it to be updated, which in turn helped her family to access the benefits under Targeted Public Distribution System. This was indeed a great relief for them especially during the pandemic, because there was hardly any work and income for months at a stretch.
 
Availing financial assistance from pension yojana
Arti and Muskan are siblings residing in Kurthala village, Nuh, Haryana. Their family income dwindled with the passing away of their father. The girls joined the Digital and Life Skills Awareness sessions in 2021 where, apart from learning the basics of computer, internet, and life skills, they also learned about the provisions of various government programs. Following this, they went to the Common Service Centre and applied for Nirashrit (destitute) pension with proper documentation. After this, the sisters started receiving a monthly pension amount of Rs. 1,600 each, which supported them financially to a considerable extent.

3.    Aid to online payments, shopping and more

Shopping is simple and hassle-free
Gaurav is a student of government school, Kota Khandelwal village, Taoru, Nuh, Haryana. In August 2019, he started attending the Digital and Life Skills Awareness training sessions and learned how to use the internet in day-to-day life. One day he asked his father to buy shoes and a bag for himself, but his father had no time to go to the market as he was busy in his farm activities. Gaurav decided to purchase his shoes and bag from Flipkart, an online shopping portal. He did so using his family’s mobile phone. As a young boy from a farmer household with limited exposure to online platforms, being able to use an online portal for shopping generated a lot of happiness within him, as he could proudly display his possessions bought through Flipkart to his family members and friends.

Initiating use of online mediums
Digital and Life Skill Awareness sessions organized in Gulalta village of Nuh, Haryana, taught computer and internet to a total of forty students. Through these classes, the students learned about access to the internet, MS Office, government programmes and local participation, and started putting their knowledge to practice. In this digital era, digital transactions are common and can be done with just the click of a button. The classes taught the students about digital money transfers, and they were astonished to see how it works! They put this into practice by paying utility bills online and also recharging their phones. The parents were happy to see their children adapting to the present times. Students shared that the experience built their self-esteem and decision-making abilities, as they could now see and decide for themselves what to buy from several options available to them. They became comfortable with online shopping as well.

4.    Aid to building confidence and negotiation skills


Convincing families to avail smart-phone
Runni, a student of class 9 from Mahua Khurd School of Alwar, Rajasthan, wanted to be a part of the online sessions of Digital and Life Skills awareness that resumed in July 2021 after the second wave of the pandemic, but her parents could not afford a phone. However, with the help of the training facilitator, she was able to convince her family of the importance of digital awareness in almost all fields, right from paying of bills to phone recharge, banking, and online education. Runni’s father decided to support her and hence bought a low-cost smartphone in installments. Thus began Rumni’s journey of exposure to the digital world.

Increasing confidence brings in new hope for future

Nisha, a student of Government Senior Secondary School, Hajipur village of Alwar, Rajasthan, always noticed gender discrimination in her family withadditional facilities being provided to the boys. She joined the Digital Awareness and Life Skills sessions where she learned about computers and critical life skills. She developed confidence and self-esteem and started taking initiatives at home such as digital payment of bills, mobile recharge, and many others. She appraised her parents about how the awareness sessions provided opportunities to girls like her to learn new things. Her parents started appreciating her efforts. Now Nisha has a dream to become a doctor, and her parents are supportive of her dream.

5.    Aid to health and hygiene awareness

Generating awareness around COVID-19-appropriate behaviour
Amit Kumar, a student of Government Senior Secondary School in Hajipur village of Alwar, Rajasthan, joined hands with other students from the Nehru Yuva Kendra in his village to conduct door-to-door outreach activities building awareness around COVID. Together with the sarpanch, Amit also organized a cleanliness drive in the village. He invited opinions leaders and panchayat members in his village to inform the general public on COVID appropriate behaviour. He attributes his awareness level to the digital training classes organized by Sehgal Foundation in his village.

Diminishing digital divide empowers youth at the grassroots

The Digital and Life Skills Awareness sessions are clearly empowering the rural youth to a considerable extent by diminishing the urban-rural digital divide and also fostering in newer rays of hope. The course is a short and introductory one designed to provide knowledge about basics of computer and the internet through theory and practice sessions. Hence, it can be easily managed alongside formal education of the school students as well as the extra burden of household chores that girls and young women regularly have to bear in rural households. In addition to this, the course has provided easy availability of digital tools like laptops, phones, internet connectivity, among others, to the students who are residents of rural India. This is especially relevant because in India 70 percent of the population still reside in rural areas with irregular internet connectivity and inadequate digital infrastructure. No doubt, the pandemic induced dependence on digital tools that further fuelled the need for easy availability and access to digital tools in rural areas.

No doubt, till now, the journey of providing exposure to digital devices and skills to the rural youth of the country has often met with several challenges across states. To begin with, it was often difficult to mobilize girls in a patriarchal socioeconomic structure where many parents or in-laws still consider exposure to digital devices as harmful for girls or young women. Even after successful completion of the course, many girls were denied access to computers or smartphones, which deterred the process of being in regular practice of using digital platforms. Secondly, the intervention villages where the course was conducted often lacked stable internet connectivity and electricity connection, which interrupted continuity of classes. Thirdly, intermittent waves of the pandemic disrupted offline classes and forced the facilitators to shift to an online module, which complicated the situation further as many students did not have the digital tools to attend online classes.

Despite these challenges, the initiative continued to play a positive role in the lives of rural youth and often left a long-term imprint on their young minds. It has provided opportunities to mainstream rural youth to a great extent in terms of exposure to newer opportunities, especially career and life choices. More so for girls and young women, it has been able to provide motivation and act as a catalyst to break shackles of gender discrimination and rise beyond social restrictions. The newly developed confidence and self-esteem hasencouraged the students to move ahead without fear.

Kirti of Dongargaon Kawad village, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, joined Digital and Life Skills Awareness classes in 2021, which enhanced her confidence level to a great extent. Earlier an introverted personality, she is now participating in the upcoming Speech Competition in her school on the occasion of Independence Day celebrations in August 2022. In addition to this, the classes also helped her develop a career goal of becoming a doctor, which she never thought of earlier. Hema of Shahpur village of Alwar, Rajasthan, proactively supported the Digital and Life Skills awareness facilitator to convince the villagers for allotting a space from where offline classes could be resumed after the second wave of the pandemic was finally over. “The empowerment led us to find alternatives amidst adversities, and we found out a solution to hold classes,” says a confident Hema.

On the whole, the Digital and Life Skills Awareness initiative has proved to be path breaking in bridging the urban-rural divide and providing opportunities to rural youth to access as well as develop basic skills to use digital devices.

Debika Goswami is Senior Program Lead – Local Participation and Sustainability, SM Sehgal Foundation. Navneet Narwal is Associate Lead, Transform Lives, SM Sehgal Foundation.

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